Encouraging children’s Bible literacy: The power of the curious question
Thursday 5 December 2019
Melissa Lipsett, Bible Society Australia
As any parent of young children knows, little people ask lots of questions. In fact, it has been estimated that an average pre-schooler asks about 40,000 questions over those four crucial developmental years.
But then what happens? What dries up those questions? Where do all the questions go?
Some experts believe children start to be anxious about being seen as stupid. ‘If I ask that question, it means I don’t know the answer. People might laugh at me.’ There is also the suggestion that the education curriculum schools work to is so focussed on meeting set developmental markers, that it leaves little room for experimentation and creativity. A third impact is the family environment. There are many demands on parents’ lives—working, running a household, managing children of different ages. How does a parent keep up with a stream of questions that seem unrelated to anything?
No doubt it is a combination of all three along with other cultural influences such as ready access to entertainment via mobile devices.
We live in the Age of Information. Our children can access more ideas in one day than previous generations could encounter in a lifetime! How do we equip these young minds to discern the quality of information they consume? To keep asking good questions.
Much of what children are exposed to online, often via a plethora of social media channels, runs counter to the values of Christianity. If they do not know how to read an age-appropriate Bible—if we, their parents, have not taught them Bible literacy—how can they possibly interpret the vast amount of ideas, all competing not just for their attention but their allegiance, through a Biblical lens?
Asking curious questions is crucial to learning about my place in this huge world that is around me. If we suppress these questions, it either forces the questioner to seek other avenues for the answer or it starts to shut down that questioning mind. Why do you think Adolf Hitler wanted all books destroyed?
The Creator God made us in God’s image. We are made to be curious. To create. To think big. And we have God’s word, the Bible, to help us understand the world in which we inhabit; to ask the questions about who we are, where we came from, why are we here, what is our purpose?
Bible Society thinks a lot about these kinds of questions because at the very centre of our mission is to grow people’s engagement with the Bible. It is only as we engage in this sacred text that we start to understand the nature of God. And part of the responsibility of the older Christian is to introduce the next generation to the Bible. ‘One generation shall laud your works to another, and shall declare your mighty acts.’ Psalm 145:4 (NRSVCE)
We are constantly looking for new ways and different channels to give as many people as possible ready access to God’s word. Like others, we utilise social media, we send out a daily devotion, we have a web-based Bible app. We publish Bible-based content; we product podcasts; we make videos. We give away Bibles to chaplains, to churches, to Scripture teachers. But we still wrestle with how we support Churches and individuals as they engage in God’s Word across the generations. And I believe it comes back to asking great questions.
According to historian and broadcaster Dr Meredith Lake, family Bible reading was an accepted practice for white settler families of the mid-1800s NSW. ‘Family Bible reading was a mark of an increasingly settled European society.’ Dr Lake writes in her award-winning book The Bible in Australia (NewSouth, 2018).
Christiana Blomfield, a well-to-do believer who settled near Maitland in the 1820s, invited her children to discuss their idea about particular passages as part of their general education:
They come to me for an hour of a morning, when they read a portion of the Scripture, which I explain to the best of my ability, and I encourage them to make remarks on what they read. This hour is considered quite a recreation, and I endeavour to make it a pleasure to them. (The Bible in Australia)
Christiana obviously didn’t have quite the competition for their attention as face contemporary parents. After all, back then there was no mobile phone, no wifi, no TV (either B&W or colour), no radio, no cinema, no shopping centres, no motorised transport, no electricity. Quite possibly many families owned a Bible and just a few other precious books. But other distractions or not, this early settler mother is modelling for us how to foster a love of the Bible with our children.
As I look back on those early years of child-rearing, we read stories—including Bible stories—together most nights, and both parents and children loved that intimate time together. However, if I had my time over again, I think I would change how I engaged in my children’s teen years. I realise that due to my own anxiety about the potential influence of the fast changing culture, I operated from a place of fear. I tried to model Christianity and at the same time shut down the doubting questions. It didn’t work!
Each person, no matter what age, makes that faith decision themselves. It is only in the wrestling, asking those hard questions, that the seeker finds God through their personal engagement with the Bible. That is the wonder of the Christian faith. We are being invited to partner with God in a living breathing story.
The curious child lies at the heart of Bible Society’s latest little publication—a children’s book about Christmas. The child, in fact four of them, are the lead actors in this story. As the storyteller starts with ‘in the beginning God made everything…’ the who, what, why, how questions begin. It speaks to both the innocent and the cynic because God is ready for both.
Children’s questions help us learn to see the world differently. The learning becomes mutual. This idea of shared learning was at the heart of the mentoring model we created as part of our church’s children’s ministry several years ago.
We recognised that we needed to get mentoring right from a very early age. And so, we introduced a system which gave responsibility to our children and youth. Primary children were invited to serve in pre-school ministry as helpers. Secondary school students mentored primary schoolers. This model of the older age group working intentionally with the next age down has paid real dividends for this church.
There is less fear because the older age recognises themselves in the questions being asked. They are open, willing to learn together, and out of that model grows true inter-generational Bible engagement.
The reason Christianity has spread around the world is because God empowered human beings to spread the Word—to neighbours, friends, to all nations and to the next generation. Our Gen Z and Millennial children are asking the same questions young people have been asking for centuries. Nothing surprises God. Let us be open and ready to any and all questions offered by those younger than us. We can always find the answers together.
For a free copy of the Bible Society Christmas book, click here.
Reverend Melissa Lipsett is the Chief Operating Officer of Bible Society Group, which includes Bible Society Australia, Centre for Public Christianity, Eternity News, and Koorong Christian book shops. She is also currently the Chief Executive Office (Acting) of Bible Society Australia Group. Melissa has been married to her husband Peter (an international Qantas pilot) for over 35 years and together they have two young adult children.